With Edelman recently marked its tenth anniversary in the region, it's Middle East CEO Omar Qirem had two goals for the agency; to boost the firm’s reputation and nurture local PR talent.
Half-Arab and half-Irish, Qirem, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia's Yanbu district, joined Edelman in 2012 as director and head of public affairs in the Middle East, following a 12-year stretch in government communications, covering briefs such as education, health, housing, business and the military.
After a brief break from the firm – leaving Edelman to be an international director of communications for prominent Saudi business Abdul Latif Jameel – Qirem returned to run Edelman’s Middle Eastern operations in September last year.
Now, his eyes are firmly set on how it can expand the company’s presence and reputation in the region.
"We celebrated ten years in the Middle East this year, and we are still the only agency to have our regional HQ in the capital Abu Dhabi. We started with just four people in that Emirate, and now have 130 people across the Middle East," he said.
"We are very proud of some of the work we have done in the region; including our #HearItFromMe campaign for LinkedIn, which encouraged women in Saudi Arabia to showcase their professional skills on the platform. This has just won the award for Best Campaign: Middle East in the PRWeek Global Awards 2019, campaign work around recognising people who do good deeds in Abu Dhabi, helping launch UAE National Day celebrations with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and helping promote Dubai as a tourist destination."
Qirem said his biggest achievement has been mentoring young talent. "We have always been dedicated as a business to helping talented people start and grow their careers in the industry. Indeed, some of our Middle East staff have even gone abroad and joined Edelman offices in Toronto, Amsterdam, and London to expose them to international markets," he said.
"Now, one of my high priority goals is to keep nurturing the talent in the region. I want to give young people here the same opportunity I was given as a 19-year-old intern.
"I appreciate that sometimes all it takes is one person who believes in you so you catch that break to get started in your career. I always believe in paying it forward for other people.
"Professionally, I want to help continue to grow Edelman’s reputation in the Middle East, especially in Abu Dhabi, and continue to do work we are proud of."
Qirem says there are a number of similarities between the Middle East and the rest of the world, including a focus on research and analytics, strategic communications, and nurturing and growing talent. He also believes there is space for smaller boutique agencies in the Middle East.
"If we all do good work and help professionalise the industry, then that can only be a good thing," he said.
Qirem says PR shops must be personally invest in the region. "I regularly tell people in other markets that you must ‘unpack’ the Middle East, as the region is not homogeneous – the approach, dialect and ways of working vary from country to country – the writing style in Saudi Arabia is very different to the UAE, for example.
"You must be heavily invested in the Middle East. It is crucial to appreciate and understand the culture, ways of working, the traditions, and have the relationships, otherwise, it will be a tough market for any newcomer. It is also a small town - so reputations and behaviour matter."
Breaking new ground
One of the benefits of the Middle Eastern communications market is being able to break new ground.
He added: "Also, the Middle East is doing some of the most interesting work in the world right now – Dubai Expo2020; communications for whole cities; and helping traditional family businesses communicate how they are diversifying and going global."
However, there are challenges, such as a continued push for closer integration across digital, research, planning and creative disciplines, which Qirem described as "a necessity rather than a luxury".
"I also think we are also very aware of fake news and letting others define you, which makes proactive corporate communications even more important," he said.
"As CEO of Edelman and chairman of the PRCA MENA, I am also consistently seeing that there is a need for finding and growing the right talent across the board from creatives, digital, and traditional comms.
"Today, I would say the required skills to succeed in the Middle East include: adaptability to change, understanding how business is done, digital savviness, and strong general knowledge of local and world news."
Other areas that need to be improved to boost the reputation of PR in the region is "building relationships with journalists".
"(They) need to truly understand what they are interested in, improve how to pitch stories properly, and when to call them (not during their 10am daily meetings for example). There also needs to be a focus on training and on content development – making sure the content we produce as an industry is of top quality."
Despite this, Qirem is excited to see what his continuing Middle Eastern career holds in a region with an abundance of emerging markets.
"I am excited about the whole of the Middle East – I read newspapers from Egypt, Saudi, and UAE every morning. But I would say I continue to be most excited about UAE – where Abu Dhabi has been our home for ten years – and Egypt, which has a huge youth population and consumer market and millions of young, creative individuals just looking for the right platform to showcase their ideas."
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